Before the War
Brown was a radical abolitionist who opposed slavery and treated African Americans as his equals. Even in the North, where the states had outlawed slavery, his views were uncommon. In Virginia, which had the largest population of African Americans of any state, Brown was especially feared and reviled. Slaves were an integral part of the Virginia economy. Some worked on tobacco farms, some were employed in light industry, and others were rented out to companies building railroads and mines. However, Virginians made much of their money buying and selling slaves, exporting them from the state to the cotton fields of the Deep South. Virginia abolitionists, like Moncure Daniel Conway, were rare; more common were Virginians like George Tucker, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who had not always supported slavery but didn't want Northerners interfering with it.
Proponents of states' rights argued that states had joined the United States voluntarily following the American Revolution (1775–1783), and could leave voluntarily. While they objected to the power of the federal government, their objections were loudest when they thought slavery was threatened. Fearing such threats, they had used their political power to pass legislation that protected their "peculiar institution." The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, for instance, forced Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners in the South. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) ruled that African Americans could never be citizens. Few Southerners complained about these uses of federal power, but they worried that Republican Party candidate Lincoln, if elected president in 1860, would prevent slavery from expanding into the western territories won during the Mexican War (1846–1848).
The Virginia Convention, called to consider secession, met in Richmond beginning in February 1861. At first, there were more Unionist than secessionist delegates, including Jubal A. Early, the former Whig Party member and future Confederate general. The tide began to turn, however, as Virginians came to believe that Lincoln would attempt to use the military to force the seceded states back into the Union. After Confederates, including Edmund Ruffin, fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers from all states, including Virginia, to help put down the rebellion. On April 17, the Virginia Convention voted 88 to 55 to secede. A statewide referendum on May 23 made secession official. Virginia had joined the Confederacy.
Virginia was a significant battleground for both Union and Confederate forces. It contained the Confederate capital, the capture of which would be an important symbolic victory for Union forces. For Confederates, Virginia was critical to defend because it was home to valuable industry, mining, and food production. At the same time, its geography—mountains in the west, and rivers that flowed west to east—made its defense somewhat easier.
Lee decided to invade the North a second time. War had been difficult on the land and people of Virginia and he hoped to take the fighting into Maryland and Pennsylvania. He also hoped to encourage the political prospects of those Northerners who wanted peace by bringing the war to their doorsteps. During Lee's first invasion, the year before, there was a chance that a victory might bring recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain, which depended on its cotton. Now, in 1863, that chance was even slimmer. After J. E. B. Stuart won a huge cavalry battle at Brandy Station, and Confederates under Richard S. Ewell captured Winchester, Lee's army met Union forces, now under George G. Meade, at the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle lasted for three days, from July 1 to July 3, 1863.
Even when families didn't split apart, life at home was difficult. In fact, the distinction between the home front and the front lines was not always clear. At the beginning of the war, Union leaders believed that most Confederate civilians were at heart Unionists. If they were treated well, they would turn against their government. Southern morale remained fairly high, however, so Lincoln and his generals attempted a different strategy, called hard war. They targeted anyone or anything that they thought aided the Confederate war effort. In the Shenandoah Valley—which produced food crops but also had symbolic value—Union generals David Hunter and Philip H. Sheridan destroyed crops and livestock. Hunter burned VMI and ransacked Washington College. Some homes were also destroyed.
Food was scarce for everyone, not just prisoners. In Richmond, a group of women marched to the Capitol to protest the rampant speculation and inflation that had led many people to go hungry. The protest turned into what became known as the Bread Riot (1863), which ended only after Governor John Letcher threatened to send in troops. However, the governor also promised to step up his efforts to relieve the suffering of the poor. Some Confederate civilians protested the government for other reasons. They worried that President Davis and the Confederate Congress were infringing on their civil liberties, and protested declarations of martial law in Richmond, Petersburg, and Lynchburg.
Many Confederates claimed that free blacks supported their cause, but in reality most only did so by threat of violence. Martin R. Delany of Charles Town actually joined the Union army and became its first black field officer, while Jim Limber lived in the Confederate White House. The Confederate government required many men, including African Americans, to serve the army or government; however, in Charlottesville in 1863 four slaves murdered a Confederate officer rather than comply. As Union armies neared, many slaves escaped to Union lines. Union general Benjamin F. Butler declared them to be "contraband of war," or property that would otherwise aid the Confederate war effort. This allowed him to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act and not return them to their owners. It also helped pave the way for emancipation.
Religion was an important means for African Americans to exercise their freedom. In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, for instance, African Americans established their own First Baptist Church in a hospital basement. Following the war, black churches in central Virginia joined to form the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association, led by E. G. Corprew, an African American pastor and missionary. Of course, white Virginians also worshipped during the Civil War, and many Confederate soldiers organized huge religious revivals between battles.
End of the War (1864–1865)
In the spring of 1865, Lee's army was much smaller and less well equipped than
Grant's, despite the efforts of Josiah Gorgas and the Confederate Ordnance Department. (Tredegar ironworks in
Richmond, operated by Joseph R.
Anderson, was the largest producer of munitions in the Confederacy.)
After Grant finally broke through
Many white Virginians, meanwhile, remembered the Civil War in terms of the Lost Cause. This view of the war argued that Confederates had fought to defend states' rights, not slavery. In fact, Lost Cause advocates claimed that slaves had been loyal servants, many of whom hoped for Confederate independence. The Lost Cause view also argued that despite the efforts of brave Southern men and noble Southern women, the South lost the war because the Union army was larger and better equipped and its generals more willing to let their men die. Historians have responded that some Lost Cause claims are true while many are not. Still, the Lost Cause has had two critical legacies: it helped whites in the North and South reconcile after the war and, for some, helped to justify white supremacy in the South.
Many Virginians worked hard to commemorate the efforts of soldiers and civilians. During the war and after, books were written and art created (for instance, the famous Burial of Latané ) about the era's people and events. Many towns erected statues honoring Lee and Jackson, such as on Richmond's Monument Avenue. Lexington even built Lee Chapel, where the general was buried. Virginia women formed Ladies' Memorial Associations that identified and buried Confederate dead. Later, the battlefields where Union and Confederate soldiers died were preserved as parks, while museums, like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, were also established.
The American Civil War continues to be debated in Virginia—in arguments over the Lost Cause, slavery, and states' rights; in novels from The Fathers (1938) and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) to The Known World (2003); and in discussions of how best to remember the era, either during the Civil War Centennial (1961–1965) or, more recently, the Civil War Sesquicentennial (2009–2015). Although many Virginians identify passionately with the war and its symbols, the conflict's meaning is far from settled.
October 16–18, 1859 - John Brown and twenty-one raiders attack Harpers Ferry and capture the United States Arsenal there in an attempt to start a slave rebellion. Five men are killed (four white and one black). Ninety United States Marines, under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee, capture Brown, who is wounded in the struggle.
November 6, 1860 - Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois, is elected U.S. president. He wins 1 percent of the vote in Virginia. While John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party wins the state overall, the Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge wins the trans-Allegheny counties of western Virginia.
July 21, 1861 - The First Battle of Manassas is fought near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia. Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard decisively defeat Union forces commanded by Irvin McDowell.
December 13, 1862 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia crush Union general Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Fredericksburg in one of the most lopsided defeats of the war.
July 1–3, 1863 - Union general George G. Meade defeats Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, forcing the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to retreat toward Virginia.
June 15, 1864–April 2, 1865 - Union general Ulysses S. Grant lays siege to Petersburg, south of Richmond, for ten months, finally breaking through Robert E. Lee's lines at the Battle of Five Forks. Petersburg and Richmond immediately fall and Lee retreats to the west.
April 6, 1865 - At the Battle of Sailor's Creek during the Appomattox Campaign, Confederate general Robert E. Lee loses 20 percent of his army, most of it captured, including nine generals.
1866 - Ladies' Memorial Associations form throughout Virginia and the former Confederacy to provide "proper" burials and Memorial Day services for the Confederate dead.
July 6, 1869 - Voters ratify the so-called Underwood Constitution, rejecting separate provisions that would have disfranchised men who had held civil or military office under the Confederacy. The new constitution supplants the former one, proclaimed on April 7, 1864.
October 14–15, 1870 - Following the death of former Confederate general and Washington College president Robert E. Lee on October 12, his remains are carried to Lee Chapel where they would lie in state before his burial in the basement vault.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B. The American Civil War in Virginia. (2014, June 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/American_Civil_War_and_Virginia_The.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "The American Civil War in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 26, 2010 | Last modified: June 20, 2014
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.